If Grant Morrison and his Batman Incorporated collaborator Chris Burnham announced that they were putting out a creator owned book through Image Comics called Dildo Factory, about a living, breathing motorized sex toy coming to terms with its newfound sentience, would you buy it?
Now, obviously, Morrison and Burnham didn’t do that. At this year’s Image Expo, they announced an intriguing new, hush hush horror comic called Nameless, but, had they gone the phallic route, I would wager that a vast majority of their fans would be equally excited. Image Comics has been experiencing something of a resurgence in the last couple of years. Originally formed by a cadre of superstar artists striking out on their own, Image’s unique and enviable business model has long been overshadowed by their association with the decadence and excess of speculator boom indulgence. Their open submission process makes them the biggest game in town for independent creators looking to make a splash in the mainstream.
Over the last year or so, Eric Stephenson and company have wisely begun to highlight this particular aspect of their operation, a timely decision considering the ongoing frustrations creators have endured while working for The Big Two. Wooing big name creators like Brian K. Vaughan, Greg Rucka and Jonathan Hickman to come do their own thing at Image sent a new message. Image was to be a haven for guys like Rick Remender to come cut loose when they needed to unwind from working on X-Men crossovers.
It’s very telling that a big part of their new marketing campaigns didn’t run with cover images, or promotional art, but very artsy photographs of the creators themselves. As enticing a premise as Saga presents, that isn’t what sold the book to new readers. It was people following Brian K. Vaughan from Y: The Last Man or Ex Machina. Image was selling you what you knew. If you recognize this man, either from conventions or a Wizard magazine Top Ten, then you know what to expect, and he is here to offer you more of that. Do you love Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye? Then of course you’re also going to be in the bag for, oh, Anything Else This Man Pitches. Obviously, it transcends just the writer, and in many cases, hinges on the promised collaboration between two individuals with a strong track record, not unlike the never-ending critical acclaim parade that is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Image announced they were giving the aforementioned team an unprecedented five-year deal to publish literally anything they want. Brubaker and Phillips now have a constant green light to go in whatever creative direction they so choose, and why shouldn’t they? They’ve got over a decade of consistently strong books on their CV.
This shouldn’t be considered that odd a development. Image Comics, of course, began on the thrill of seeing superstar artists from Marvel and DC doing whatever the hell they wanted out on their own. It’s not like people bought Spawn because they didn’t think there were enough comics about hamburger meat hell demons covered in chains and sobbing, wet regret. It sold on Todd McFarlane’s name and personal style. This iteration of the selling the creators first and the book second paradigm differs from the first hay day of Image in that these newer books are selling themselves on a pedigree and a focus on storytelling quality, not just double page spreads and implausible breasts/biceps/bazookas. This was the equivalent of a Roger Corman-esque shlock factory changing with the times to push prestige pictures onto wider audiences.
On the surface, this isn’t a bad thing. Renowned creators getting the opportunity to tell stories to their fan base without an interfering middleman while also retaining creative control over their work is something to applaud. Everyone’s beef with the lack of diversity at this Image Expo shows that, underneath, a bigger issue is at hand. It isn’t just that a majority of the flagship writers and artists being paraded as the forefront of this movement are white men. It’s that we are being pitched Image as a weapon against the current establishment of the comics industry with very popular proponents of the comics industry being used as the face of the movement. Of course there are more diverse creative teams putting books out through Image, but the ones we’re seeing as the major titles are being produced by a litany of creators who have largely already found great success at DC or Marvel, two publishers with incredible diversity issues.
When DC announces a list of new creative teams every few months, when low sales lead to artistic turnover, there is no shock or awe when presented with a startling paucity of women or minority group representation. They’re the Status Quo and that is the accepted order of things. Image gets us excited about the future and a new way of doing things and a serious shift in gears from what is being shoved down our throat on a regular basis, but the notoriety, the name recognition, is still coming from that same Big Two teat.
It makes perfect sense to direct the spotlight onto these creators. In the age of social media, we have a perceived closeness to the writers and artists who’s work we admire. We get to witness Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction’s adorable marriage quips in real time all over their various interweb platforms, and it endears them to us. I will cop to supporting Pretty Deadly less because I’m into mystic western stories and more because I generally support the DeFraction household brand, and in some weird way, maybe I want their kids to go to nice schools. By the same token, hearing about Brian Wood’s indiscretions on the convention circuit give one pause when catching up on back issues of The Massive. Letting creators be the face of their own personal brand specifies and grounds things in a way that cuts on both sides. Batman can’t really disappoint me. He’s a fictional character. Scott Snyder however, can let me down any day, and then why would I want to pick up his new book with Jock?
Selling books on the merits of their authors is in no way a bad idea. It works and whatever attracts readers is good for the industry, but it isn’t just about short term sales growth. Expanding the audience and making the overall pot bigger for everyone is going to take new voices and new perspectives. In 2014, if Image wants to truly be the shining beacon of change in the comics industry it seems to have positioned itself to be, a better focus on the work itself needs to occur, as well as a stronger showcase for the up and comers who are going to be the next generation of Bendis, Gillen, et al.